The fight over keeping presidential front-runner George W. Bush off the witness stand in an influence-peddling scandal intensified Thursday when Texas Attorney General John Cornyn asked a state court to quash a subpoena issued to Bush. Bush's testimony is being sought in a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a fired state employee. The move by the attorney general, which also seeks to prevent the plaintiff's attorneys from seeking additional documents from the governor's office, is the latest development in the case alleging that Bush and other state officials tried to thwart an investigation into Houston-based Service Corporation International, the world's largest funeral company.
Bush, who is not a defendant in the lawsuit, submitted a one-page affidavit to the court in which he says he has "had no conversations with Texas Funeral Services [sic] Commission officials, agents or representatives concerning the investigation of SCI by the Texas Funeral Services Commission or any dispute arising from it. I have had no conversations with SCI officials, agents or representatives concerning the investigation or any dispute arising from it."
It's still unclear if Bush, who has received $35,000 in campaign contributions since 1996 from SCI's political action committee, will be deposed. A hearing on the matter has been set for August 30 in the Travis County Courthouse in Austin. An elected state district court judge will decide if the facts in the case merit Bush's testimony. All but one of the judges who could be assigned the case are Democrats.
If the judge decides that Bush must testify, the case will almost certainly be appealed directly to the Texas Supreme Court, where Bush has a decided advantage. All nine justices on the Texas high court are Republicans and four of them were appointed to the bench by Bush. A fifth justice was appointed by Bush to a lower court and recently won election to the Texas Supreme Court. Political observers in Austin are already speculating that if the case goes before the justices, they could simply sit on the case for a year or more, thereby preventing the matter from becoming an issue in Bush's bid for the presidency.
Bush's allies are desperately trying to avoid a high-profile legal proceeding for the governor in the middle of the budding campaign season. In his motion to keep Bush off the stand, the attorney general argues that a plaintiff "does not gain the right to depose high level corporate or state officials simply by virtue of naming a corporation or state agency as a defendant in a lawsuit." The motion also argues that the deposition is being "sought purely for purposes of harassment."
The argument has a familiar ring to it. Bush's efforts to avoid the deposition are similar to those taken by President Clinton in the Paula Jones case. In the Jones case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that even sitting presidents are not immune from subpoenas if they have information that is relevant to a case, thus forcing the testimony for which Clinton was impeached on charges of perjury. The clear difference between the two cases is that Bush is not a defendant in the whistleblower case in Texas.